The earthquake that shook Haiti in January 2010 killed 222,570 people. Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in May 2008, causing more than 138,000 casualties. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami swamped 11 countries on the Indian Ocean, claiming nearly 250,000 lives. Since 2000, more than 4,000 natural disasters around the world have caused over one million fatalities and economic losses nearing $1 trillion (U.S.).
It’s easy to feel sheltered in Canada. After all, the past decade’s most costly natural disaster may turn out to be the flooding in Manitoba during the spring and summer of 2011. Roughly 6,000 people were displaced, and damages totalled more than $600 million, but nobody died, which is why we might underestimate the risks we face.
This may not remain the case, however. Many major Canadian urban centres, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Montréal, are at a moderate to high risk of experiencing a large earthquake. Moreover, scientists predict an increase in the intensity and frequency of storms, floods, heat waves and droughts.
Mitigating the risk of such natural disasters is a growing priority, and conservation can play a role, according to Roy Brooke, who works in the sustainability sector in Victoria and was a United Nations Environment Programme official in Rwanda. By preserving natural ecosystems, the natural physical barriers and systems that can assuage severe winds, rains or landslides remain in play, lessening the impact of the next hurricane or quake.
Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is a prime example. When Hurricane Jeanne hit in 2004, the forests that protected the Dominican Republic from flooding and mudslides had been clear-cut on the Haitian side. “On the green side, people were relatively unscathed,” says Brooke, “and on the brown side [Haiti], there was havoc.”
Canadian cities can learn from this. Consider Vancouver, whose entire metro area once resembled Stanley Park, with an extensive system of streams running through it. Those waterways were paved over, rerouted into pipes or diverted. Today, only two streams remain visible in urban Vancouver, but the city is working to bring others back above-ground to help deal with storm water and reduce the risk of flooding.
There is no blanket approach in Canada. Winnipeg, for instance, faces an entirely different set of threats than, say, Victoria. One commonality, says Brooke, is that a shift in attitude is necessary — everywhere. “The issue is recognizing the value that ecosystems have and looking at how we can create vibrant ecosystems within cities for disaster resilience and other purposes.”